Champagne, 100 minute dinner breaks and posh frocks all come to mind but there’s more than that to Grange Park Opera, the youngest of the Summer festivals.
Dynamic founder Wasfi Kani combines the rarefied activity of pedalling high-art to a well-heeled suburban audience with a sideline of taking quality musicals into prisons. It’s a staggering range of ambition. Pimlico Opera, which Kani founded in 1987, pre-dates Grange Park by a decade and, in addition to its community work in prisons, which it carries out on an annual basis, the company also tours to regional venues. You can’t say that Kani isn’t aiming at a diverse audience.
It doesn’t end there. Grange Park Opera has spread out and for the last six years has been presenting its productions at Nevil Holt, a 400 year old house in Leicestershire. The market is still upper but they can’t be accused of confining their activities to just the affluent South East. The affluent midlands are now well catered for too.
When not conducting West Side Story at HMP Wandsworth (the prison project for 2009), Kani is just as pioneering catering for a less captive audience in the depths of leafy Hampshire. The Grange, an early 19th Century Greek revival house at Alresford, near Winchester, has an award-winning theatre seating 500 in its old orangery and this year it will host the UK Premiere of a 342 year old opera, Francesco Cavalli’s 1667 Eliogabalo.
With Covent Garden only last year mounting its first Cavalli opera, it’s a brave step for a company with considerably fewer resources but, if the gamble pays off, it should prove one of the operatic highlights of the year.
Like the better-known La Calisto, Eliogabalo harks back to the classical period, but this time instead of a mythological subject deals with a historical one, at least as historical as a 17th Century treatment gets. The title character was one of the more colourful Roman emperors, a bi-sexual who is reported to have said he never slept with the same woman twice just as he never wore the same clothes twice.
It’s a bawdy and lively work, shelved in Cavalli’s time and only finally produced five years ago by Ren Jacobs at La Monnaie, Brussels. Grange Park’s new staging is therefore a rare event and a thrilling prospect for lovers of early opera and those with a taste for adventure. A recording of the Jacobs production proves it to be every bit as beguiling as other works by a composer who is slowly creeping into the repertoire, alongside the already accepted work of his master Monteverdi.
I spoke to Grange Park’s David Fielding about the forthcoming production of Eliogabalo, which he will both direct and design. “Although I haven’t seen that much live, I find myself becoming obsessed with Cavalli,” he tells me. “Jane Glover rather dismissed this work in her book on the composer but I find it a quite extraordinary piece.” He describes how at a dinner party with Kani and Christian Curnyn (who will conduct the production) he played the Jacobs recording, which he’d streamed off the internet, and the three of them ended the evening completely smitten.
Fielding, distinguished as both director and designer (his stunning designs for Nicholas Hytner’s Xerxes at ENO are particularly memorable), is not alone in his obsession with the 17th Century Venetian. The composer seems to inspire adoration from a growing audience. David Alden, someone Fielding has collaborated with very successfully in the past, is also increasingly delving into the prolific composer’s catalogue (following his well-travelled Calisto, he has just directed Ercole l’amante in Amsterdam).
I ask Fielding what he thinks the appeal is for us today. “It’s a combination of extremes: debauchery and bawdiness, derived from the commedia dell’Arte and the politically quizzical,” he says, “It’s a microscope on society. It’s almost like seeing Tarantino on stage.”
“I’m fascinated by the character of Eliogabalo,” he enthuses, “he’s something of a gay icon perhaps best known to us in this country from the Alma-Tadema painting, where he poisons his guests with a shower of rose petals. But I like the ambiguity of his sexuality; it’s something I will play with in the production.” He says he would have preferred a counter-tenor for the role but has ended up with a mezzo, the Croatian Renata Pokupic.
He talks about the challenges of staging at the Grange theatre, where there is no flytower and limited wing space. “I haven’t looked too much into the details of the original stagings but of course in Cavalli’s time, they would have had very elaborate scenic effects, something like Cecil B de Mille,” he laughs. He is planning to give Eliogabalo a setting that “slides between Ancient Rome and contemporary society.”
Not surprisingly, Fielding doesn’t want to go into too much detail about his intentions but, with a track record of thrilling productions behind him, and a fascinating and beautiful score to work on, he should deliver a treat to Grange Park audiences this Summer.
The programme for the six week festival (running from early June to mid July) will also include Rigoletto, the under-performed Norma and Janacek’s gorgeous Cunning Little Vixen. There are tantalising previews of both the Eliogabalo production and Grange Park itself to be seen on Youtube.
Tickets for Grange Park Opera productions are available on 01962 73 73 66 from 16 March 2009.